Brave WW1 nurse reached top of profession

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HELENSBURGH was home in later life to one of the first nurses to face the dangers of World War One in France.

Catherine Murray Roy was the daughter of the Rev John Roy, minister of Drymen Parish Church in the village Main Street for 41 years.

She was a lifelong friend of TV inventor John Logie Baird’s sister Annie, whom she met at the Ministers Daughters College, later Esdaile, in the Grange district of Edinburgh.

Born in January 1883 and one of eight children, she was educated at Glasgow High School and at the college in Edinburgh.

She decided to go into nursing, at that time still an adventurous and unusual career for a woman, and she trained at the Western Infirmary in Glasgow.

Once qualified in 1909 she chose to join the army, instead of the more conventional job of working as a hospital nurse. She thought that it was better paid and offered more opportunities for travel.

At her interview she declared: “I want foreign service and I want active service.”

She was to have both as she was accepted into Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service which was set up by Royal Warrant in 1902 to replace the Army Nursing Service, and she became what was known as a QA.

When the Great War broke out in 1914, fifty nurses were sent to France with the British Expeditionary Force, just over a week after the declaration of war on August 4. Her friend Annie was also in the group.

In action almost at once, Catherine began to experience the demanding and dangerous life faced by an army nurse working near the front line.

This service early in the war qualified her for the 1914 Star and the right to the nickname ‘Old Contemptible’, although the term is not usually applied to women.

Catherine Roy (2nd from right) and colleagues in the Sisters Hostel at Abbeville, Somme, c.1916.

The nurses faced battlefield conditions for which no training or experience could have prepared them, dealing on a daily basis not only with devastating shell splinter and shrapnel wounds, amputations, gangrene and the effects of gas, but also shell shock, frostbite, diseases such as tetanus and dysentery, and the constant presence of violent death.

Soldiers injured on the battlefield followed a well determined route.

If they made it back to their own lines, on stretchers, carried by soldiers or on their own, they were quickly patched up in a very rudimentary way at the regimental aid post at the edge of the battlefield. Next was the field dressing station behind the lines where they might receive injections and emergency operations from medical officers and orderlies.

From here they went to the casualty clearing station, well behind the lines. This was, in effect, a well-equipped field hospital, often tented and staffed with nurses and doctors.

The final stage of this journey in France was the base hospital, to which they were usually transported by train.

After a period of recovery they were either sent back to Britain for further treatment, or returned to the battlefield. Sadly, at every stage of this journey, death was commonplace.

In general, nurses were attached to base hospitals and casualty clearing stations, but it was not unknown for them to work closer to the front line.

Catherine served in many of the major campaigns. She was at the Somme in 1916, meeting on a few occasions her brother Jim — 2nd Lieutenant James Ferrie Roy — who was fighting there with his regiment, the Black Watch, until his death at High Wood on July 30.

On May 29 1917, while a Staff Nurse, she was mentioned in despatches. In October the same year she was awarded the Military Medal, for ‘Conspicuous gallantry displayed in the performance of her duties on the occasion of hostile raids on Casualty Clearing Stations in the Field’.

The citation in the London Gazette of October 17 stated: “17 Casualty Clearing Station: At Dozinghem, at 9.15 p.m. August 20th 1917, during a Bomb Raid in which there were 68 casualties, including 14 deaths, this Lady showed remarkable presence of mind and amid the darkness and confusion, and gathered together the Staff of Nursing Sisters in an extraordinary short space of time, to attend to the injured.

“Her attitude throughout the night is deserving of the highest praise, and her assistance was of the greatest value in restoring the order and the comfort of the patients.

“She maintained her presence of mind in a wonderful way.”

When the war ended in 1918, Catherine, by now a full Sister, stayed on in France to nurse victims of the Spanish influenza epidemic, and was awarded the Medal for Epidemics in Silver Gilt in March 1919.

In January 1920 Catherine was awarded the Royal Red Cross 1st Class, an award specifically for nurses introduced at the behest of Queen Victoria in 1883, and she received it from King George 5 at an investiture at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh on July 5.

During the 1920s and early 1930s, Catherine continued to serve as an army nurse, and travelled frequently to postings overseas, including Syria, China and Hong Kong.

A good manager and excellent with people, she rose steadily through the ranks of the nursing service.

In 1934 she was appointed Principal Matron at the War Office, an equivalent rank to Lieutenant Colonel, and then in April 1938 she was appointed Matron-in-Chief of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, the most senior post in the service.

In July 1940 Catherine received the CBE from King George VI for her work during World War Two (right), to the delight of the July 18 edition of the Stirling Observer (left).

She then retired from the army and returned to Scotland, to look after her mother and her sister, settled into a way of life that enabled her to pursue her interests in art, music and all the pleasures of an intellectual life offered by Glasgow.

At this point she met the artist Elizabeth Mary Watt (1885-1954), one of the ‘Glasgow Girls’, a famous group of women artists and designers.

She painted a portrait of Catherine in uniform, wearing her medals.

She was a crossword addict and competed regularly with her brother to see who could complete the Glasgow Herald’s daily crossword in the fastest time.

Towards the end of her life she moved to Helensburgh, near her childhood home, and she died on August 14 1976 at the Western Infirmary, where she had trained, after a fall at the age of 93. Her grave is in Drymen Cemetery.

Margaret Roy, her great-niece, who knew her well until she was ten, said that without that fall Catherine could have gone on forever.

She added: “My great-aunt was a lovely woman, always pleased to see you and interested in what you were doing.

“She was very kindly and a petite wee woman, but she must have been strong to do what she did. She never talked about her life or the war, except to say how awful the food was.”

Annie Baird (left), who was also born in January 1883, had a distinguished nursing career too.

She received her early training at the Deaconess Hospital in The Pleasance, at that time an impoverished part of Edinburgh, then joined Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve.

Annie was mentioned in dispatches twice. On January 23 1918, she was summoned to Buckingham Palace to receive the Royal Red Cross.

After the war, she continued her nursing career at a hospital in Deptford in the east end of London, but in May 1924, she and brother John were back in Helensburgh for the funeral of their mother, who had died at the age of 68.

Annie stayed on at The Lodge to look after her father, the Rev John Baird, who was in his 80s. He died in 1932 at the age of 90, leaving Annie the house, where she continued to live quietly with housekeeper Margaret Scott.

When World War Two started in 1939 she was too old for the rigours of active service, but was appointed Assistant Matron of Lennox Castle Hospital, just north of Glasgow.

Not long after John Logie Baird’s death in 1946, his widow and children moved back north to live with Annie at The Lodge.

The TV inventor’s son Malcolm said: “Aunt Annie was always reticent about her time as a nurse in World War One. The details of her war service only emerged after her death in 1971, when medals and papers were found among her effects.

“Annie can truly be described as a war hero, although she might have been rather uncomfortable with that description. I can almost hear her saying that the men in the trenches were the real heroes, and she was just doing her job.”

  • The picture of the group in the Sisters Hostel at Abbeville is copyright the Imperial War Museum and is part of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service collection.